“The power of the digital creator economy has truly enabled equitability for the first time. We believe it is time for that equitability and democratised access through technology to work for traditional arts and artisans too,” says Yosha Gupta, a serial entrepreneur who founded MeMeraki.
Claiming to be India’s first ‘culture-tech’ platform with online art and craft masterclasses taught by traditional artists and artisans, MeMeraki enables artists to be ‘digital creators’. The online platform stands at the intersection of the ed-tech and traditional creative and culture industry.
“The pandemic exacerbated marginalisation for artisans but on the consumer side, it also showed how essential creativity is to our wellbeing and our very survival and that’s how this business model for masterclasses with traditional artisans was born. Our mission is to ultimately create a powerful voice and presence for artisans online using technology and in doing so create sustainable livelihoods for them as well,” she adds.
‘Gucci bag with Madhubani art’
Yosha doesn’t come from a background that would suggest an intense passion for the arts. Until she founded MeMeraki in 2017, her professional journey stood at the intersection of finance, technology and development which includes a major stint at the World Bank. In fact, in the early 2010s, she founded her cashback startup when the e-commerce boom in India took off.
But traditional arts and crafts have always been a part of her life. Volunteering for organisations like the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY), through school, college, business school and even during her stint in Hong Kong working for the World Bank.
She says, “The arts have existed in my life without actually being my career.”
“MeMeraki started in a serendipitous way. While I was in the process of shutting down my last business, I was getting my handbags and clothes painted by a traditional artist in India whom I met during my volunteering stint with SPIC MACAY. It was a Gucci handbag that I had got hand painted by a Madhubani artist, which led friends of mine in Hong Kong to ask me whether it was a limited edition handbag or not. This got the conversation started, and people started asking me whether I could get something like this done for them as well,” recalls Yosha.
The insight she generated from this experience is that these traditional arts are fading away not because people don’t appreciate them. It’s because they have no awareness of it.
“That’s what led me to start a passion project where we launched a collection of hand-painted handbags. The genesis of MeMeraki was quite different to what we are today. Even though we started in the world of fashion, the mission has remained the same. We wanted to bring the traditional arts on a global platform in a way that people haven’t seen before and the medium initially was handbags. The story of the brand always centred on the master artist, their craft and the story behind each work of art. With every hand-painted handbag, we would give our customers the story behind the artist making it, the art form and the motif behind it,” she says.
Pivoting to a new future
But just as the venture was gaining serious momentum, the world was struck by the COVID pandemic. Their sales tanked and the 50-odd artists they were working with across India were in dire straits financially. Not only were they unable to get work from ventures like MeMeraki, but they couldn’t sell their regular works of art with physical exhibitions shutting down and the tourism industry suffering a major downturn. What’s more, they weren’t digitally enabled.
“I would go to the extent of saying they were digitally marginalised because they had no presence in the online world. They asked us whether we could do anything for them to sell their artwork. See, these are proud craftspeople, and they didn’t like asking for such favours. So, our team got together and did some serious brainstorming,” she notes.
Given their lack of online presence, these artists had little choice but to adapt online. On the other hand, to bridge the gap of lacking creative pursuits during the lockdown, MeMeraki came up with the idea of launching live art workshops.
“We initially organised simple two-hour workshops where the master artisan is teaching a particular style or form of art and every participant is finishing the artwork assigned to them. The first two workshops included teaching Madhubani and Gond art. These workshops were organised in the first week of April 2020. Given the fact that at the end of these sessions, people were making something and sharing it with other people in their social networks, which helped spread the word about these live art workshops to a larger audience,” she recalls.
The first five months of these art workshops had de facto became MeMeraki’s way of supporting COVID relief work. “We weren’t pocketing any of the revenue except to pay for payment gateway and GST costs. The rest was directly passed on to the artisans. While people had liked our work before, we never saw this level of community building, particularly among patrons. Given its scalability, MeMeraki built a new commercial model around these live art workshops,” she adds.
Evolution of MeMeraki
Since these were two-hour workshops, they had to keep them simple for the audience. But everything MeMeraki has built thus far comes from listening to its community of patrons.
“Following the success of our live workshops, our community of patrons asked us whether we could organise more advanced workshops with the master artists over five or six days where they can create more complex art pieces. They wanted to learn more about the history of the art form, how traditional colours are used, what are the motifs, the story behind every motif, etc. Then we started researching and putting it together as a course curriculum,” she says.
So, they started creating these advanced workshops and this helped their growing community to come back for more. Some of them have attended over 50-60 workshops.
After these advanced workshops began gaining traction, their community of patrons asked whether they could buy authentic materials from the artisans directly. For example, for a terracotta workshop, patrons wanted to use the terracotta used in Molela village in Rajasthan, which is famous for its production of brightly painted terracotta plaques and figurines.
“We started getting terracotta directly from artisans like Dinesh Molela, developing art kits out of it and began sending them to our patrons who would use them in these advanced workshops. The same thing happened for many of our other advanced workshops,” she notes.
“For our Pichwai art workshop, we started sourcing the natural colours and pre-sketched (because some people like to colour but not sketch) artwork from the artists. Thus, we started developing and curating these art kits as well for our patrons,” she adds.
However, for many of their patrons, the ‘wow’ moment would arrive when after the workshop they would show the audience their studio, how they work, their other finished artworks and the complex paintings they’ve done. A lot of these artisans are national and state award winners.
But since many of them didn’t sell online, MeMeraki needed to create a marketplace and list all these paintings for these artists as well because it’s very tough for artists to do it on their own.
They started training artisans on how to take photos of their artworks on their phones through video lessons they would make for them. Memeraki now sends teams to their locations to photograph their artworks, document local artistic heritage and also engage with the families or micro-communities that can enable this art form further.
The next insight from the live workshops was that some people started buying recordings of their old workshops. After all, people want to engage in this creative pursuit during their own time. For the next two years, a major point of focus is going to be creating a list of pre-recorded masterclasses where MeMeraki teams visit the site where these artists reside, spend six to seven days alongside a videographer, and create a visually-rich masterclass.
“One masterclass has six to seven sessions right from the introduction of the artist, the art form and what materials are used. This is followed by a demonstration of three artworks ranging from a beginner-level to a more complex and intermediate-level artwork along with a lot of documentation around the history of the art form, iconography and the colour theory defining it, among other facets. We’re putting in a lot of work and research into it,” says Yosha.
They have launched seven masterclasses and are working on launching 50 in the next 12 months. India has over 3,000 traditional arts and crafts. Their mission is to digitise each of these traditional arts and crafts and create a masterclass for all of them.
Central to everything MeMeraki does are the artists. Take the example of Krishna Tashi Palmo, an artist from Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, who does Thangka painting. Even though she lost both her legs to polio, it doesn’t hinder her ability to make exquisite murals.
She learnt Thangka painting at the TCV traditional art school in Patlikuhl, Kullu district, over five years from 2006 to 2012. Her dream of becoming an artist as a young child pushed her to learn Thangka painting even though it’s an art form which isn’t traditionally taught to women. Also, Thangka painting is one of the few traditional art forms which is formally learnt in an institute. Typically, these art forms are passed on from one generation to another.
“MeMeraki approached me in 2019 through social media, and we’ve been associated with each other ever since. They initially approached me to employ the traditional art I had learnt to paint on their wooden clutches and purses. Later that year, they invited me to attend the Kalyani Festival in Hong Kong, which celebrates the contribution of women to Indian visual and performing arts. I put up my artwork in a 10-day exhibition, besides doing demonstrations of Thangka painting,” recalls Krishna.
Once the lockdown was enforced in March-April 2020, they invited her to take online classes on Thangka painting. “Even to this day, I take online classes on Thangka painting via the MeMeraki platform. Besides, I sell my paintings on the website they created for us, which has helped me reach a wider audience. I don’t receive regular orders for my paintings but when I do receive them they are sizable because of the wealthy patrons. MeMeraki always pays me the price I set for my paintings,” she notes.
“When it comes to Thangka paintings, there are firm rules given its association with the Buddhist faith. It’s a deeply spiritual and meditative art form which requires disciplined and dedicated practice and learning. Akin to meditation, which has some strict ground rules, Thangka painting also requires robust mental focus. This is an art form I’m deeply passionate about and since 2006-07, I have been regularly making Thangka paintings,” she notes.
Another remarkable artist is Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, who does Gond art. His stunning works have created a new visual identity for Gond art.
Born into a Gond Pardhan family in Sejora village of Madhya Pradesh, Venkat has entrenched himself in the world of art for the past four decades. Training under his uncle, the famed Gond artist late Jangarh Singh Shyam, he has since developed his own style which visually narrates ancient tales of his community and the world today. His style is steeped in tradition, but yet so contemporary.
There is also Pratima Bharti from Darbhanga, Bihar, who makes Madhubani Mithila paintings. A state merit awardee felicitated by the Delhi government, she remembers painting since she was a child given how she was surrounded by artists in her own family.
“I’ve been through several struggles. Besides painting, I take care of my kids, cook food for them, and do my daily prayers and other domestic chores. Only during my free time do I sit and paint. Once I create a collection, I take these paintings to sell them in the market. I also take orders on demand. The good thing about this field is that there is no discrimination between a male and female artists. Men and women get an equal opportunity to display their work. My first introduction to Delhi came in 2001 when I took my paintings to Dilli Haat,” says Pratima.
What she desires most is recognition for her artwork.
“I have many dreams, which I haven’t fulfilled yet. But I dream of the day when I receive a State award, National Award and a Padma Shri too. Painting has become a part of my daily routine. I can’t even digest my meal unless I have painted a little every day. The rasa of my artwork are the intricate details through line painting style which makes the work of art look beautiful,” she adds.
‘Fair share for the artist’
“Our gross margins across all business categories are on average about 35% if we calculate it on a profitability basis. The other 65% goes into costs and to the artists. For live workshops, artists on an average receive 30-35% of the revenue generated from the workshop. For artworks listed on our website, we pay them the price they want and in the masterclasses about 20% will keep going to them in perpetuity for every transaction. In total, we have worked with over 200 artists across more than 70 different styles of Indian art and craft now,” claims Yosha.
Although it’s important for the artists to get their fair share of the pie, what MeMeraki also takes pride in is helping them get comfortable online. They organise multiple Zoom calls to train them and make instructional videos about how to take online classes and present their work. From remote training to lessons in basic photography and public speaking, they prepare artists to engage with a global audience.
“Despite doing so many live workshops, they sometimes still struggle with it and have to retrain them. Even soft skills like how they narrate the story of their art form, and their life story and give feedback to people during the workshop are explained to these artists by our team. In other words, we offer technology and soft skills training for these artists as well,” she notes.
After all, they are front and centre of everything MeMeraki does. “From the start, we were very conscious about telling their story and putting their name upfront. It’s also about the commercial and economic opportunities we can create. We respect the fact that this is not about us, it’s about them. This is what helped us establish our credibility in their eyes,” she adds.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao; Feature images of Thangka artist Krishna Tashi Palmo on the left and Pratima Bharti, a Mithila artist, on the right)
(Visit the MeMeraki website for more information. You can also follow them on Instagram here.)
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